Here’s Why You May Not Need a Mentor to Shine in Student Affairs

Throughout the trajectory of any career in student affairs, you’ll probably hear someone promote the importance of having a mentor.

Some people will say that a vital part of your career’s progression is the relationship you build with a mentor, considering the reputation and connections they might have in the field. And then there are those who believe that not having a mentor is dangerous — something that might cause you to miss out on vital developmental milestones.

For anyone who has not been able to locate or connect with a mentor, it can feel like something might be wrong with you or your career choices. But you can also view not having a mentor in a positive light.

It takes time and energy

Truth is, finding a good mentor can be a difficult process. It can take a long time to connect with someone, establish strong communication, and develop a rapport. The search might leave you feeling discouraged, which is the opposite of how a mentor should make you feel.

It’s important to acknowledge that building a relationship can take a great deal of energy, something that both you and a mentor might not have the capacity to commit to. Beyond the constraints of time and the complexities that come with our daily duties, we must understand that mentorship requires tremendous effort and reliability — out of both people.

The mentee must be willing to devote time to doing the “homework” that comes with having a mentor — being open, available and willing to grow. It’s important to know that, sometimes, having a mentor can add to the pressure of your time and growth as a professional, making it harder for you to receive the right lessons at the right time.

You must know why

It’s always important to start with your why. Many people forget why they wanted a mentor in the first place; they just feel that they “should” have one.

You might need to have an honest conversation with yourself about your reasons for seeking mentorship, in order to explore whether or not a mentor can actually meet those goals.

It’s okay to ask yourself, “Am I really looking to excel in this area?” and “Am I not finding a mentor because I don’t know what I really want?”

Sherlock thinking gif

Seeking out a mentor without fully understanding what you want out of it could stunt your growth as a professional. It can cause friction in the mentor-mentee relationship, with both people frustrated by the lack of progress and direction.

You must consider that many of the people whom you want to help you might struggle to understand what you need. Sometimes, it’s not that someone doesn’t want to help you; they’re just not clear on how to do so.

Consider other options

Remember, It’s okay to want help but not a mentor. You might even be in a place where you’re looking for pointers and not a full-blown mentee-mentor relationship.

By finding friends or colleagues whom you can trust for advice, mentorship can take on a different form. One of the best substitutes for a traditional one-on-one mentorship system is a network of like-minded professionals who are looking for ways to grow.

One way to do this is to connect with other folks who don’t have mentors. Ask them about how they stay motivated in their work, especially in times when they are made to feel bad about not having said guidance.

Gone are the days of only needing one type of mentorship relationship and in are the days of pulling from multiple sources. Getting out of the idea that “mentorship” has to be a singular word and making it plural can add so much value to the journey that you’re on. It not only allows you a greater pool to learn from, but it also might afford you the attention that one individual probably won’t be able to give you.

Engaging with social media groups and online platforms is also great. It not only extends your reach in relation to your growth but helps you give back to others.

You can create these networks by simply saying, “I’d love to get your feedback on something I’m thinking about” or, “I know you work in that area. Can you give me any pointers on how to attain a similar position?” It’s all about asking the right people the right questions.

Validate yourself

Keep in mind that mentorship isn’t vital for validating your worth. While student affairs is largely built around validation, remember that who you are and what you do is enough all on its own.

Rarely do we stop to think about where we’ve been and all that we’ve been able to accomplish.

Who are the people you’ve inspired? How have they inspired you? Revisiting these memories, and the awesome feelings they gave you, might help you recognize how uniquely talented you really are.

Understand that having a mentor doesn’t add or take away from how essential you are to the field and the students you serve. Even more, it doesn’t define the legacy that you’ll hopefully leave behind for others.

It’s okay to accept that textbook mentorship might not serve you.

Remember: A mentor isn’t what makes or breaks your career path. Knowing who you are, what you bring to the field, and how you can inspire others can be a much more fruitful way of owning your growth process.

How have you excelled without a formalized mentor? Let us know on Twitter @themoderncampus and @Doctor JonPaul.


Dr. Jonathan Higgins

About the author: Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins (he/him) is a speaker, writer and activist with more than 10 years of student affairs experience. Their work focuses on race & identity and ways to better support marginalized students while eradicating oppression. Learn how we can help get your students involved.